A COUPLE of weeks ago I developed “Twitter neck”. Think the less serious marker of addiction than a smoker’s cough, and the point when confronting your vice ceases to be optional and requires some intervention. I’d developed a tightness in my shoulders no amount of massage could touch. It took a doctor to point out that this, along with broken sleep and an inability to relax, were the physical manifestations of anxiety — something I’ve wrestled with for many years. “You need to simplify your life” was the advice. Ha. Kids, work, blogging, reports, book-writing — not much I could cull there. But there was one quick win I knew I could make: I could “go dark”.

Being constantly online means subjecting oneself to a constant onslaught of unpleasant information. Staying online is incompatible with getting well. It was time for a digital sabbatical.

If this was going to work the way I desperately needed it to, cold turkey was the only option. In the past, I haven’t completely islanded myself, instead trying to shut out the noise on a channel-by-channel basis — but I know from every previous futile attempt that my ability to self-moderate is lacking. “I need it for work,” I’ll say to myself — which is true. This is my area of specialism. “What if I miss something important?” Each protestation really a get-out clause, so I don’t have to commit to disconnecting. Each an act of self-bargaining that ultimately leads me back down the digital rabbit hole with alacrity, cavorting back into the quagmire of human nastiness, only to remember why I’d tried to quit.

I’ve tried to hover casually around social media in the past, setting myself rules and boundaries. Only once a day. Only checking in with those who improve my day. Only posting positive things — a picture of my dog or a tree or a passage from really good book — but it’s always short-lived. I’ve never managed to keep myself at a reasonable distance from the event horizon. Before I know it, I’m sucked in and powerless to hold on to my time and my optimism. Cynicism, sarcasm and disdain take over. The dog pics give way to arguments. The trees to small annoyances. The book passages to politics.

It’s hard to stay nice on the internet. It’s a mirror that constantly reflects back the darkest parts of humanity to us. For most of us, it beams them directly into our hands or pockets, all day every day. In his memoir Reasons to Stay Alive, Matt Haig zeroes in on this: “The world is increasingly designed to depress us. Happiness isn’t very good for the economy.” Bad news sells papers. Studies show anger is the most powerful emotional contagion, which means negative posts spread further and faster than happy ones. We’re driven to endlessly consume based on expertly engineered anxiety over engineered lack. Sure there are good gifs, memes and podcasts — but overwhelmingly, you rarely get offline feeling better for the time you’ve put in. So many of us never really get truly offline, period.

There is no kill switch when you decide to go dark. Our online and offline lives are so blended, it takes a concerted effort to totally unplug. It’s only once you start trying to tackle this seemingly Sisyphean task that you realise the extent of the internet’s intrusion. I looked back over a presentation I’d given earlier in the year and reinterpreted the statistics with a new horror. Each minute, there are 31.25 million Facebook messages, 347,222 tweets, 48,611 Instagram photos and 300 hours of video uploaded to YouTube. There are 204,000,000 emails sent, 48,000 apps downloaded from iTunes and 416,667 Tinder swipes. We’re all creators and consumers, stuck in an endless loop of documenting, commenting, liking, swiping, scrolling and refreshing. We’re living in an age of information overload, and so many of us are addicted without realising it. No wonder so many are feeling burned out. I shut down my Twitter account, followed by Facebook and then Instagram. I deleted the apps, and kept going until there was nothing left on my phone to beep, buzz or disturb. That meant no breaking news, no email push and absolutely no app notifications. Each update is like Red Bull to anxiety, containing the possibility to derail my day.

THERE have been times when I’ve felt like my online life was a necessary crutch to help me balance the stress of life offline. Now, it just adds to it. My digital life has become a hobbling device in some ways — though I’m struggling to pinpoint the moment when it slipped from enjoyable distraction, to necessary aid, to absolute hindrance. I’ve met wonderful, inspiring, supportive people with whom I now have real-world friendships. For that purpose, social facilitation, I will forever be grateful. But on balance, I have come to question how social media is enriching my life. Are the net gains greater than the losses? Definitely not.

It seems digital negativity is both a cause of and consequence of more people interacting online. Art Markam, psychology professor at the University of Texas, recently told Scientific American, the internet is “a perfect storm” that engenders rudeness and aggression. Anonymity and a lack of accountability, distance from real people, and how much easier it is to be nasty in the written form over oratory. Because it’s not a real-time conversation, commenters can write their lengthy diatribes undeterred (my personal record for angry riposte was 2394 words). People don’t communicate that way in real life. No-one stands by waiting patiently whilst the aggrieved expels a lengthy, virulent soliloquy. We walk away. It’s not so easy to avoid monologues online.

I don’t give much credence to the contemporary concept of detox — it’s a bit of a woolly word that doesn’t mean very much — but, for once, I find it’s the best way to describe the difference in how I feel right now, “in which one abstains from or rids the body of toxic or unhealthy substances”. I’ve been purging myself of negativity, and it feels marvellous.

After a couple days, there was a noticeable improvement in my mood. Though it felt like trying to give up cigarettes — I had to figure out what to do with my hands. I read a book that wasn’t on my kindle. I played my guitar. I drew a picture for the first time in two years. I had a real conversation on the phone for hours. And you know what? The pleasure from each of these things — the smell of new pages, the warmth of a strummed Em7, the scratch of 2B on cartridge paper – was a thousand times more gratifying than any comment or like has ever been or could be.

I’m sure I’ll plug in again eventually, but for now, this will do just fine.